Northwestern alums tackle immersive theatre in new show “Masque Macabre”


Source: David Rosenberg

The cast of “Masque Macabre” practices a scene. The show is an immersive theater experience, with audience members playing the roles of party guests.

Wilson Chapman, Web Editor

To Eli Newell, immersive theatre is appealing because of the combination of an emotional and physical pull directly into the story. As the co-director of Strawdog Theatre Company’s new original theatrical experience “Masque Macabre,” Newell gets to explore just that.

“With immersive theatre, you literally get the opportunity to walk the path of another character,” Newell (Communication ’18) said. “You can … watch them navigate both the physical topography of the space, but also the emotional topography of the space.”

“Masque Macabre” premieres Oct. 4 at Strawdog Theatre Company’s venue in Chicago and is inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and other prominent horror authors. The plot follows a young, rich party host hosting one last celebration before his “past catches up to him” while masked audience members play the guests as they explore the performance space.

A recent NU grad, Newell’s opportunity to work with Strawdog Theatre arose during Fall Quarter of his senior year, when he wrote, directed and staged an immersive play called “FAIR GAME: A Chicago Spectacle” with Sit & Spin Productions. The show, loosely based on the events of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, was staged throughout Cahn Auditorium as audience members explored various intersecting storylines.

After the opening performance, Newell was approached by a representative of Strawdog who said they would be interested in working with Newell in the future. By December, Newell had signed on to co-direct “Masque Macabre” for the company.

As co-director, Newell gets to work with material similar to “Fair Game.” Both are immersive pieces inspired from preexisting texts and use classic stories to explore completely different directions.

The show’s costume designer Virginia Varland (Communication ’16) echoed this sentiment. As a long-time reader of Poe and his texts, Varland has a particular connection to this show.

“It’s nice to grapple further with stories I’ve loved my entire life, and see how they can be relevant to contemporary audiences and contemporary storytelling,” Varland said.

She said immersive theatre is exciting because audience members always have a different journey through the show no matter how many times one sees it, the play remains fresh and new.

“Masque Macabre” actor Collin Quinn Rice (Communication ’15), said the performance education at Northwestern prepared them well for show. Rice said students learned how to utilize movements that spark an emotional reaction in the audience, a tool they have used to stay present in “Masque Macabre.”

“Especially with an immersive work like this, I have to be so present and engaged with every fiber of my body that it’s so important for me to have that education behind me,” Rice said.

Rice said working in an immersive show is challenging because it requires them to remain in character, no matter what turns the show takes. However, they said this flexible experience is exciting, because they love being able to receive immediate feedback from the audience.

For Newell, the instantaneous audience reactions and diverging paths of an immersive theatre piece are part of what makes working on them so engaging. In particular, the open-ended nature of how one experiences these works is one of the reasons he is drawn to “Masque Macabre” in the first place.

“Everyone’s experience is different, but nobody’s experience is incorrect,” Newell said.

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